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World The New Rules: Obama's Israel-Palestine Red Herring

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
23 May 2011

The New Rules: Obama's Israel-Palestine Red Herring

World Politics Review

Thomas P.M. Barnett | 23 May 2011


Much of the reaction to President Barack Obama's speech on U.S. Middle East policy last Thursday focused on his reference to Israel's pre-1967 borders as the basis for a future two-state solution with Palestine. But Obama's speech was far more focused on long-term realities, suggesting that he is not really willing to push for some historic Israeli-Palestinian peace plan against the background of the Arab Spring. In fact, it's fair to wonder why he chose to expend any of his political capital on this deadlocked issue, especially since he had to know that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would reject the 1967 boundaries proposal as a starting point for negotiations, as Netanyahu had already protested that point's inclusion in the speech prior to its delivery.

Now, despite having walked back his criticisms of the speech over the weekend, Netanyahu's ice-cold visit to the White House on Friday becomes the historical coda to what was billed as a framing speech for the region as a whole. That's too bad, because it was actually a tremendous speech, full of what I would call "developmental realism." Not only did Obama eschew any direct promises of toppling leaders, he coupled a passive-tense treatment of American leadership with a clear repudiation of the notion that elections alone can bring "real reform." Thus he spent the bulk of his speech listing all the vast social reforms -- freedom of religion, women's rights -- that must undergird political change, while stating unequivocally that all such transformations are unsustainable absent broadband economic development.

In short, Obama's speech made clear just how much the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complete sideshow to the civilizational rebirth triggered by the Arab Spring, which is about the Arab world finally adapting itself realistically to the demands imposed by globalization's creeping embrace: If you want to do real business in this world, achieving the sort of investment and production-chain integration that generates serious job creation, you must engage with all comers regardless of race or creed. Regarding women, the reality of every economic "miracle" of the last several decades is that they all began when societies allowed women to join the workforce en masse. There's your "inscrutable" secret of Asia's rise.

Obama stated as much on both of these highly contentious issues, signaling his understanding that for the Arab Spring to be successful, it must be a process that extends many years beyond his presidency. But make no mistake: The Arab Spring arrives on the basis of demographics -- the youth bulge -- and globalization's connectivity. The Israeli-Palestine issue neither held up its arrival nor obstructs its progress. At best, it remains a potential red herring for future Islamist governments in places like Egypt that need to cover up their domestic policy failures. But there's nothing new about that. Obama noted these "strategies of diversion" as a political mainstay of the region.

Meanwhile, the president made magnificently clear that Israel's defense remains a "core interest" of the United States. Yes, he couples it with "pursuing Arab-Israeli peace," but the wording there is purposeful: America "stands up" for Israel's security but merely "pursues" peace. The former is implied as sacred duty, the latter an eternal goal.

Compared to these firm statements, the end-of-speech sales job on the necessity of seeking Arab-Israeli peace seemed weak -- as in, political flank-covering and nothing more. Obama tells us that the conflict "impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people." Here, too, the word choice is instructive: It impedes, but doesn't prevent those partnerships, and its removal as an obstacle could improve the economic climate, though there are no guarantees it will.

But quite frankly, even this couched language is true only for the Palestinians themselves. Israeli businessmen operate throughout the region, a process I've witnessed first-hand in deal-making investment conferences in Arab nations. The Israelis don't need peace with Palestine to succeed at globalization. The Palestinians' alleged Arab allies could do the same for Palestine's economy, but they simply choose not to. Indeed, Israel has done more to promote Palestine's economic development than the Arab world has, even as it has simultaneously punished the occupied territories with economic disconnectedness bordering on imprisonment. But as the latter dynamic is necessitated by Hamas' continuing violence and commitment to Israel's destruction, the ball remains in Palestine's court on that one.

So what are we to make of Obama's seemingly historic recasting of the inevitable land-swap negotiations? By setting the pre-1967 borders as the starting point, he simply tells Israel that his administration expects Israelis to compensate the Palestinian Authority for every stitch of land occupied and filled up with settlement housing since then. But instead of bargaining over land, the Palestinian Authority needs to bargain over trade connectivity if it's ever going to meet the real needs of its citizenry. A genuine Obama peace plan would have been chock-full of developmental schemes for the Palestinian people themselves, since physical infrastructure, not land, is the crucial quotient here. For Obama to propose peace in such blood-feud terms suggests that he has no intention of making any effort in this conflict. His special envoy, George Mitchell, sensing the same, quit right on the eve of what was billed as an historic speech.

And despite the subsequent sideshow, it lived up to that billing. Other than his strangely archaic formulation on Arab-Israeli peace, Obama's address displayed a realism deeply in touch with globalization's current evolution and the Arab world's near-complete failure to embrace its income-raising connectivity. The thrust of Obama's speech, and especially his focus on long-term economic and social solutions, was right on the mark. It is the sort of intellectual courage I readily applaud. I just wish he would apply the same rigorous honesty to the Arab-Israeli peace process that he's now brought to the Arab Spring. As a long-time U.S. ally and the region's standard-bearing democracy, Israel deserves better at this, its greatest moment of strategic uncertainty in decades.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is chief analyst at Wikistrat and a contributing editor for Esquire magazine. His latest book is "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush" (2009). His weekly WPR column, The New Rules, appears every Monday. Reach him and his blog at thomaspmbarnett.com.

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks on the Middle East and North Africa at the State Department, May 19, 2011 (White House photo by Pete Souza).

source: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/8931/the-new-rules-obamas-israel-palestine-red-herring